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Are Porn and Webcam Encounters Really Cheating?

Studies on infidelity typically suggest that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of people in marriages and other committed relationships are sexually unfaithful. Though cultural stereotypes tell us it is primarily men who “step out,” research says that almost as many women cheat as men. Of course, in today’s digital age the definition of cheating is a bit more nebulous than it was back in the day, when cheating meant actual, in-the-flesh sexual behavior with another person.

So what exactly constitutes cheating in the Internet age? Is a live physical interaction still required, or does masturbation to online pornography also count? What about a webcam encounter with someone half a world away? Does it matter if that webcam encounter is part of an ongoing, emotional interaction as opposed to a one-off, purely sexual situation? How about flirting with sexually available people on social media sites like Facebook or through smartphone apps like Skout and Blendr?

It’s a new and confusing world. But in reality the definition of infidelity is unaffected by technological advances. Infidelity is best defined as the keeping of secrets in an intimate partnership. In other words, with infidelity it’s the betrayal of relationship trust caused by consistent lying that causes a cheated-on spouse or partner the most pain. Whether the out-of-relationship encounter occurs in-person or online really doesn’t matter; the damage is the same either way.

So if you’re wondering whether your behavior is actually cheating, the fact that you’ve not engaged in “actual sex with another person” is irrelevant. If you’re engaged in sexual fantasy (i.e., porn) or sexual behavior that involves another person (i.e., webcams) and you’re keeping this activity secret from your significant other, then you’re cheating. So if you tell your husband you’re chatting online with your friend Suzy when you’re actually chatting up your old high school boyfriend, you’re cheating. If you tell your wife you’re using your smartphone to check the latest sports scores when you’re actually opening up a sext from a woman you met on Blendr, you’re cheating. Etc. Basically, if you’re engaged in any type of romantic or sexual behavior outside your primary relationship, regardless of whether that behavior includes another “in-the-flesh” human being, and you’re keeping that behavior a secret from your spouse or significant other, you’re cheating.

In many ways, engaging in infidelity is easier than it’s ever been-evidenced in part by the incredible proliferation of hookup websites and “adult friend finder” smartphone apps. In essence, these sites and apps use technology to unapologetically promote casual sex, anonymous encounters, and marital infidelity. In fact, the company slogan for Ashley Madison reads: Life is Short, Have an Affair. (At last look, Ashley Madison had more than 16 million members, with the number growing daily.)

Many of these websites and apps make cheating as easy as finding a good sushi bar. For instance, click the Ashley Madison logo on your smartphone and the interface instantly displays a grid of pictures of potential affair partners, helpfully arranged from nearest to furthest away. (Often they’re within a few hundred feet!) Tapping on a picture brings up the user’s profile, along with the option to chat, sext, or share your own location. If the interest is mutual, you simply make a plan to meet and begin your affair.

Sadly, most men and women who cheat don’t realize how profoundly their secretive sexual and/or romantic behavior can adversely affect the emotional wellbeing of their trusting spouse or partner. Remember, more than any sexual act, it’s the keeping of secrets and the resulting breakdown of relationship trust that causes the most pain. Oftentimes it takes the involvement of a skilled therapist to help couples remain together, turning a relationship crisis into a growth opportunity. Unfortunately, even when experienced therapists are extensively involved with people committed to healing, some couples are unable to ever regain the sense of trust and emotional safety needed to continue. For these couples, therapy can help the individuals involved to healthfully process their breakup.

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